As COVID-19 spreads and many businesses temporarily shutter, members of a Facebook group called “Mothers in Architecture” have started to discuss an unexpected problem they are facing: some firms have not given staff the option to work remotely, even as schools close and children are confined to the home. Economic instability accompanying the pandemic makes for hard decisions as concerned architects worry that pushing too hard to telecommute may get them fired. Elsa Guzman-Contrera, one of the Facebook group’s co-founders, noticed comments about work-related virus issues starting on March 16. "A lot of job insecurity concerns surfaced around this topic,” says Guzman-Contrera.
One early post began: "Is anyone else not feeling supported during this time?" The writer explained that her 150-person office in Atlanta discouraged telecommuting, but she had no choice because her children's schools closed. “I'm taking a calculated risk of losing my job by working remotely,” she wrote. “I can already sense my boss’ annoyance." (Like everyone else in this story, she did not want to be named for fear of retribution.)
In states with shelter-in-place orders, some architects still find their firms stretching exemptions regarding essential services. One architect employed by a 70-person AE firm in New York City is continuing fieldwork while the rest of the office is closed. "My project manager has not been forthcoming about whether or not I will have work if I stop doing inspection. I feel stuck because I'm afraid I'll be laid off if I push the issue.” It doesn't help that she is the only mom on the team and feels that the complications of closed schools are overlooked. In addition, of course, she is re-exposing herself and her family to the virus every day that she continues working.
Another architect, at a 150-person AE firm in upstate New York, asked for advice from the Facebook group, regarding a manager who requested she help him field measure a public library, even after the city had closed it—and other public institutions—to deter the spread of the virus. Her concern about social distancing extends to her manager, who continues to go into the office every day. She is torn because she knows that if the firm loses work, she faces a layoff.
Some pregnant women (a high-risk group for the virus) feel forced to start limited maternity leave sooner than planned, placing their households under financial stress. One architect at a mid-sized firm in Houston who works on commercial projects posted, “We are not allowed to work from home, so I will be taking unpaid maternity leave one month early due to this coronavirus.” She concluded her comment by asking for leads for remote work.
Playing devil's advocate, one architect posted that the main concern from leadership is the loss of productivity. “We're a small firm, and if people are working from home with little kids and no childcare, it's not possible to get a solid 8-hour workday in.”
Christina Congdon, who is operations manager for Environmental Works in Seattle—a major hotspot of the outbreak—helped to make decisions regarding shutting down the office. She says there is technology that makes telecommuting a non-issue and feels saddened that many offices are not: “The profession needs to get with the program, not only during a pandemic.” Mothers in architecture have made difficult choices between work and family for decades, but with COVID-19, they’re now facing decisions that may have far more serious consequences.